By John Hageman, Grand Forks Herald
Northern Plains Nitrogen, the massive fertilizer plant planned for northwest of Grand Forks, is billed as a major creator of jobs, but project planners also say it will help bring access to a type of fertilizer that's currently expensive to ship into the market.
Calvin Coey, the Northern Plains Nitrogen project manager, recently provided the Herald with a list of products to be produced at the $2 billion plant.
Among the product list is a solution of urea ammonium nitrate to the tune of 533,000 tons a year, a number that NPN hopes to increase as market demand dictates. UAN carries higher transportation costs, so having a plant here producing that product will make it more available for farmers, Coey said.
"Where it's available, it's very popular," said Northern Plains Nitrogen CEO Don Pottinger.
But the project has also raised some safety concerns over the nature of some of the products in use there. Coey that Northern Plains Nitrogen "won't be producing any materials that aren't already used and shipped throughout the region."
"You could create a hazard with any one of our products if you so choose, just like ammonia off the shelf," he said. Coey said NPN will "be a leader" in educating its customers on the safe use of its products.
The products sold or shipped from NPN will be, according to Coey:
--785,000 tons a year urea dry bulk
--533,000 tons a year of urea ammonium nitrate solution
--150,000 tons a year of diesel exhaust fluid
--100,000 tons a year of ammonium nitrate solution
--100,000 tons a year of ammonium thiosulfate
--75,000 tons a year of liquid anhydrous ammonia
--40,000 tons a year of 10-34-0
The liquid UAN product has a lower concentration of nitrogen--an important nutrient in plant development--than granular urea or anhydrous ammonia. Pottinger said NPN's strategy is making UAN more available and promoting the product to the region's farmers.
"Hauling it long distances is costly," Pottinger said. "Where it's not readily available, it's expensive to get it there. There's still a fair amount used in the Dakotas and Minnesota."
Marketing plans include increase the use of UAN as much as possible, Coey said.
"The intent would be to move the market over to UAN as much as possible, as much as the market would want," he said.
UAN solutions are "extremely versatile as a source of plant nutrition," according to the International Plant Nutrition Institute. Its chemical properties make it compatible with other nutrients and other agricultural chemicals.
"Fluid fertilizers can be blended to precisely meet the specific needs of a soil or crop," according to one of the Institute's fact sheets.
David Franzen, an extension soil specialist at North Dakota State University, said UAN is the No. 1 product in Nebraska, and it's more commonly used in the central corn belt.
"Our use is increasing each year," he said. "Right now, it has to come from outside of the state ... So to have it around is a good thing, (making it) more accessible to people."
Fabian Fernandez, an assistant professor of nutrient management at the University of Minnesota, said anhydrous ammonia appears to be less common these days, and is being replaced by urea and UAN. He said that may have to do with the equipment required for anhydrous ammonia and some of the safety concerns that come with it.
The plans for a nitrogen fertilizer plant, first announced in 2013, drew some anxiety because it came shortly after fertilizer storage facility explosion in West, Texas. That blast killed 15 people, injured more than 200 and damaged 350 homes.
Ammonium nitrate was cited as the material that exploded, according to Reuters.
Coey said ammonium nitrate is safer in a liquid form. He added that the Texas explosion involved a storage facility that had not been inspected for years.
"We committed to the community that we wouldn't produce a dry product such that you could create a situation like West, Texas," Coey said.
Ammonium nitrate is "much safer" in a liquid form, said Ted Aulich, a senior research manager at the Energy and Environmental Research Center.
Exposure to high levels of anhydrous ammonia can cause severe or fatal burns, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. But Pottinger said the Northern Plains Nitrogen plant's engineers are designing it to "very sophisticated standards."
"The safety of the product around the plant is beyond reproach," Pottinger said.
Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O'Neill said fire officials have visited other similar plants to get a sense of Northern Plains Nitrogen facility. At this point, however, he didn't have any major concerns connected with the Grand Forks facility.
"We're just doing some forward-thinking," he said of the plant visits. "From what we've received from those people, we're feeling pretty comfortable, but obviously we'll be prudent."
Coey echoed Pottinger's assurances, adding that project planners will learn from the past when designing and operating the Northern Plains Nitrogen plant. He added that ammonia storage tanks on site will have several layers of "protection to protect the general public and our employees."
The facility will also have an emergency response unit to respond to on- and off-site emergencies, among other safety features in the plant's design, Coey said.
"The advantage we bring is that as a new facility, we can take all the lessons that have been learned and apply them to state-of-the-art safety standards, policies and practices," Coey said.